May 12, 2020

Trouble With the Serve

Over the weekend, Reilly Opelka won the first pro tennis event since lockdown began over two months ago, defeating Russia's Miomir Kecmanovic in three sets to claim the UTR Pro Match Series championship.

The victory didn't earn him any ranking points, but he did score some hard-to-come-by-these-days prize money -- he was quick to point out that ATP Officials have been paid their full salary since March, even as tour play has been suspended, while players themselves have had no means of truly earning their keep -- and that all-important match play during this unprecedented time.

And in watching Opelka on court, you can't help but be reminded of another American player with very similar attributes. 

At 6'11" (!!!) the 22-year-old is actually an inch taller than John Isner, and he understandably shares his compatriot's big weapon -- down 15-30 to Kecmanovic in the third set Saturday, he fired off three aces to win the game. In his two months of regular play this year, he's already hit 214 service winners, and over the past 52 weeks he trails only Isner in average aces per match.

But as we've also come to know, a serve in this sport is not everything. I've long lamented how many times Isner is forced into a tiebreak -- nearly half his sets this year have been decided in, well, deciders -- and if you can't break your opponent's serve then what good, really, is dominating yours?

Opelka is not entirely innocent of posting similar stats. He's only won 12% of his return games this year; Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, wins more than one of every three. And he's racking up as much time in tiebreak land as Isner -- every one of their ten sets against each other last year went 7-6 or 6-7.

But he is working to improve. That 12% record compares to the 10% he won on the receiving end last year, and is several times better than the 7% he notched in 2016. And he's consciously focused on fixing his weakness.

“I've spent a lot of time on my return,” he told the Tennis Channel after his win this weekend. “I returned well in Delray, and I returned well in Davis Cup. I’m much more confident in my return game. It’s so much more fun for me as a player to believe I can break serve. I’m not just focused on holding serve. It adds a whole other element to my game.”

Will that translate into more success when regular play resumes? Hopefully -- the world #39 has already had some decent results this season, taking Fabio Fognini to five sets in his Australian opener and winning that title in Delray, the second of his career, beating Milos Raonic along the way. Last year he beat Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. 

And, since the comparison with Isner is inevitable, Opelka won all three of their matches in 2019, so at the very least he seems to be winning the battle of the big servers for now. 

Of course, I don't mean to say that Isner's career isn't something to aspire to -- we could all do a lot worse than being ranked in the top twenty for the balance of a decade -- but I would like to see Reilly do even better. We could talk for hours about how long it's been since an American played a Grand Slam final, never mind won one. Opelka may or may not be our best chance at that, but he's certainly an option.

But even beyond the hardware he could earn, for him to really thrive on tour, we need to see a more well-rounded game. I have confidence he's getting there, and can't wait to see what he does when he's truly at the top of his game.

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